Emily Hellstrom and Rachel Benbow Murdyin Swimming With Watermelons(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Emily Hellstrom and Rachel Benbow Murdy
in Swimming With Watermelons
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Swimming with Watermelons may be Off-Broadway's first karaoke musical. It may also be its last. But karaoke is a very peculiar and specific aspect of what turns out to be an inspired little entertainment. And what a pleasant surprise that is, given that it was created by the same people who brought us The Donkey Show, one of the most unlikely hits in recent years.

Our first reaction as ...Watermelons begins is shock at the overt political incorrectness of introducing an unmistakably Caucasian actress in the role of a young Japanese woman, complete with a caricatured accent. But, as Al Jolson would say, "You ain't seen nothin' yet!" Moments later, three women dressed as male aviators metaphorically fly onto the stage with their arms akimbo, singing along to a 1940s pop hit recording. One of them has a broad Brooklyn accent, another an exaggerated Southern drawl, and the third...well, he's our romantic male lead. They're all in the U.S. army, part of the occupation forces stationed in postwar Japan.

We were at sea during the first 10 minutes of the performance, trying to figure out what this show was up to. Could the whimsical souls from a group like Off-Off Broadway's nutty Adobe Theatre Company have somehow taken over the more substantial Vineyard Theatre? Goofy in tone, cheap in appearance, insanely broad in performance, Swimming With Watermelons seemed at first to have the makings of either a quirky charmer or a musical train wreck. Fortunately, thanks to inventive direction, the charm of the piece was soon revealed.

It turns out that this show isn't politically incorrect at all; on the contrary, it is intended to make a point about tolerance. That point is brought home in its mock-romantic comedy plot--our hero, U.S. army guy George (Rachel Benbow Murdy), falls in love with our heroine, the young Japanese woman Tomoko (Emily Hellstrom)--and in its gender-blind casting, with three of the four actresses in the show playing men as well as women. At the afternoon performance that we attended, the lightning-fast costume changes actually prompted applause. That applause should be directed to designer Ilona Somogyi, who has created outfits (not to mention wigs) that are at once true to character and easily removable.

Swimming With Watermelons was written and directed by Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner with help from the cast, all of whom are members of Project 400, a group which has at its goal the creation of 400 theater pieces. This game gang has had the audacity to put on a musical with a cast of non-singers; as mentioned above, they overcome that obstacle by using appropriate hit recordings from the era in which the show is set and having the performers sing along with them. For instance, when Grant (Anna Wilson) is tempted to stray from his wife by a Japanese girl (Jordin Ruderman), he sings "Temptation" along with Bing Crosby; and as Tomoko and George fall deeply in love, they sing "Night and Day" along with Fred Astaire. Get the idea?

Now, this device isn't going to conform with everybody's concept of musical theater, but it does accomplish several things. The overall effect is funny and yet, at the same time, the music fully establishes the emotional pitch of each scene. In essence, the show presents the best of both worlds in that the audience gets to hear great songs rendered by the greatest of singers while also being amused by the cast members' attempts to keep up. These sequences also help to create the sense that we are seeing a pastiche movie musical unfold in front of our eyes. In short, it's a fun concept.

The cast is fun, too, with Anna Wilson a particular standout in both of the roles she plays--Grant, the straying husband, and Yvonne, the buxom, blonde beauty. But give the lion's share of credit to Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner, who have taken a project that could easily have become a freakish mess and turned it into a uniquely romantic musical comedy.